Shortsighted – The Birdman

A series of reviews on short films that are available online.

The Birdman (Jessie Auritt, 2012)
By Hadiyya Mwapachu

The documentary The Birdman follows the owner of an independent record store called Rainbow Music. It is one of the few local music stores that is still open within the East village in New York City. The store is amassed with CDs, tapes and DVDs filled from the floor to ceiling, the people who visit the store balk in proportion to the music materials. This is a potent metaphor for the way the store functions.

In one sense, this is a collection of music that is not catalogued or organized through any recognizable system. Thus it can only be discovered through individual discovery or through the owner who has memorized every item in the store. Music and its materiality in the form of objects to look through, inspect and hold is privileged over how much space the buyers have to move around. In another sense, it is illustrative of how these once popular sites are visited by dwindling numbers hence Rainbow Music accommodates 20 to 30 people instead of the past where 100-150 a day who would frequent the store.

The owner known as “Birdman”, used to work in the stock market in his youth, only to stop at 35. He characterizes himself as a former “whizkid”, now at 70, he operates the store without a cash register or a cellphone and does all his work by hand. The store is arranged by having the best selling CDs up front, albums by the Sex Pistols, New York Dolls and The Beatles are easily found. Everything else is located by the Birdman, his mind appears to echo the store by functioning as this labyrinth consumed with history and cultural maps.

He speaks to the corporatization of the neighbourhood which is filled with corporations such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and Pinkberry. Birdman’s voice serves as an overlay whilst the camera centers on these stores. The intimacy, structure and capacity for interaction between the corporate stores and Rainbow Music is evident and haunting. Birdman puts aside new music for his customers and has their phone numbers in order to make them aware of things they would like. Unlike the multiple copies of the franchises that dominate the community, the relationships that are cultivated in Rainbow Music can not be replicated. Birdman points outs how stores like his perish amongst the larger ones.

However the documentary does not seek to romanticize independent stores. Whilst Birdman reflects on “the barbershops and delis” from his youth where “they used to be able to charge you stuff and you pay at the end of the week”, he notes that in the present “you can’t do things like that because most people wouldn’t pay it back”. The reality of the economic downfall is clear in the series of empty stores and the fact that those who struggle, include the people who used to work on Wall street who now “sell their CDs just to survive”.

Although Birdman has financial security, his store functions for the community. The emphasis is not on profit but on the recognition and exchange of mutual interests from films to the stock market to antiques, alongside providing discounts for those who can’t afford to give the full price.

The film locates the loss of culture in the East Village as the punk and metal communities are no longer visible. The removal of these communal spaces promotes an accumulation of places that do not mirror the vitality of communities. Birdman puts it simply when he says “they do not add anything to the community”.

The uprootedness that gentrification creates is readily visible in the closing of beloved sites. It is more difficult to speak to the sense of alienation that is fostered as a result. The documentary is both a eulogy for the vanished places and a celebration of the ones that remain.